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Hospital Workers in Bay Area Want More Coronavirus Testing

While a Napa, Calif., hospital contends it’s doing the best it can to protect its workers, many employees feel differently. The issue recently came to a head after seven workers, not wearing adequate personal protective gear, were exposed to a coronavirus patient.

by Mallory Moench, San Francisco Chronicle / June 18, 2020
TNS
(TNS) - More than two dozen Napa hospital workers are growing increasingly worried about the availability of coronavirus testing at Queen of the Valley Medical Center, the county’s largest health care provider.

While the hospital contends it’s doing the best it can to protect its workers, many employees feel differently. The issue recently came to a head after seven workers, not wearing adequate personal protective gear, were exposed to a coronavirus patient. More health care workers who interacted with that patient, along with others who tested positive, contend that management did not respond with the proper level of care and testing, according to their labor union.

“Our primary concern is when people are feeling like they’ve been exposed multiple times and request to be tested, then the hospital should,” said Ray Herrera, an X-ray technician and member of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. “There’s a level of discomfort that is definitely elevated from a few weeks ago.”

The hospital insists it’s doing the right thing by workers.

“At Queen of the Valley Medical Center, safety for our caregivers and patients is our top priority,” said Christian Hill, spokesman for St. Joseph Health, which runs the hospital. “We have a strict, multi-layer process to ensure the safety of all who enter our doors.”

The situation in Napa comes at a time when Bay Area health care workers are worried about protection and testing due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the consensus changes, even from unit to unit, within certain hospitals. Some workers are pushing employers to increase and improve testing, while others say they feel well-protected and can get tested on their own.

Hospital administrators say they follow public health guidelines for testing, which prioritizes workers with symptoms and those who have been exposed. Some hospitals also said they need to conserve testing supplies, which workers including Herrera questioned since many facilities have started testing all patients.

Herrera did not provide care to the patient who recently tested positive, but estimates he’s interacted 20 times with patients who later learned they had the virus while he was wearing a face shield, surgical mask, gown and gloves. Once, the hospital called to let him know he’d been exposed to the virus and should self-monitor for symptoms, but didn’t offer a test.

Last week, he got tested at a county site. The results came back negative four days later. He’s concerned the county’s turnaround time is much longer than the hospital’s, which takes less than 24 hours, especially since staff keep coming to work while waiting for results.

The hospital follows federal and state protocols for personal protective equipment, including using N95 masks for known and suspected COVID-19 patients, as supply allows. The hospital defines exposure as being within 6 feet of a coronavirus patient longer than a few minutes or having unprotected direct contact, for instance a patient coughing on the worker. If exposure occurs due to a lapse or failure in equipment or because workers didn’t know the patient was positive, the hospital contacts employees.

The hospital tests high-risk exposure workers, like the seven in the recent case, and encourages those with low-risk exposure to get county testing. Hill did not say if any workers tested positive recently to protect patient privacy.

“To be good stewards of our resources, we must be conservative with our limited testing supplies,” Hill said.

The debate over testing isn’t unique to the Napa facility. Alameda County ordered St. Rose Hospital in Hayward, where 37 out of 708 staff tested positive for the virus, to start testing asymptomatic patients and workers beginning with the hardest-hit unit.

On Wednesday, around 50 unionized St. Rose nurses, dressed in red, rallied outside the hospital holding signs that said “Protect Nurses to Protect Patients,” protesting the outbreak and ongoing safety issues. Emergency room nurse Estella Evans said she hasn’t gotten tested by the hospital yet. She’s concerned about her 6-month-old baby and has been too busy to get tested on her own.

“That is something that our employer should provide for us,” she said. “They should take care of their employees and make sure their employees are safe at all times.”

Down the block from Wednesday’s protest, about three dozen workers from other units chanted “We love St. Rose” at the hospital’s front entrance to support their employer.

“All of us here feel safe,” said Erzena Castanares, supervising nurse in the operating room. “We can’t just recklessly test people who don’t need it, we need to use (tests) for those who really need it.”
Sutter Health and UCSF also prioritize testing for workers who have symptoms or were exposed for certain time periods without proper protection. A Sutter spokeswoman said “testing supplies and capacity remain limited.”

UCSF doesn’t have a supply issue, said Dr. Robert Harrison, clinical professor in the division of occupational medicine.

“Testing should be driven by the risk of exposure,” Harrison said. “At this point, routine testing of asymptomatic individuals without any exposure is, in my view, not necessary.”

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mallorymoench
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